Women in the Law

What happened to these 'Great Expectations' women lawyers?

Twelve years ago, 21 mostly newbie female lawyers at Debevoise & Plimpton talked to the New York Times magazine about their hopes for the future and possible obstacles ahead.

A journalist and documentary filmmaker wondered what had become of these women, interviewed for a story in 2001 called “Great Expectations,” and learned that only a handful remained with the firm today. About half are still in private practice, the journalist reports at the New York Times. Some are working for corporations, and some are in public interest law. Several became full-time parents.

Five of these women reflected on their careers in a video posted with the article.

This was Melanie Velez’s statement to the magazine in 2001: “I hadn’t expected to like working for a corporate firm—it seemed like such a different world—but I really do. I feel some financial responsibility for my sister’s education, but in the long run, I’d like to focus on pro bono work, returning to things that made me want to pursue a law degree. It’s that idealistic cliché—I want to change the world.” Today, Velez says on the video that she cringes a little when she reads that statement because it sounds a bit naïve. But she did follow her passion, taking a pay cut of 80 percent to work for the Southern Center for Human Rights in 2004.

“In some sense I feel that I’ve chosen a road where it’s harder to support and provide everything I’d like to for my young boys,” she says on the video. She notes a change in her views about having it all over the years. “I thought that by working hard and dedicating yourself fully to each aspect of your life that you could have everything that you wanted,” she says. “And I think it just built these unrealistic expectations.”

When Margaret Dundon was interviewed for the 2001 article, she made this statement: ”I’ve always been assertive. I grew up in a big family, and I know how to get what I want. And the women I’ve met at law firms are plenty aggressive. But this is something I worry about: that to succeed you have to figure out what your peers need socially. At jobs in the past, I think I didn’t realize that my way, getting my way, could ever be seen as somehow threatening or offensive.”

Dundon is now identified as Maggie Spillane in the video, and she’s a staff attorney with the Securities and Exchange Commission. She’s there, she says, because she needs more of a balance in her life. She has a 40-hour work week at the SEC. “I didn’t go in with the expectation that I needed to make partner; otherwise it would have been a failed enterprise,” she says on the video.

Her video comments suggest she felt different from other women lawyers at Debevoise. “At a certain point,” she says, “you do look around and there’s kind of like, I am the only woman playing this game, or I am the only woman making these jokes, or I am the only woman or maybe one of three women and 17 men still playing poker at the firm dinner at 1:30 in the morning.”

Mary Beth Hogan is one of the most powerful partners at Debevoise, the video says. When she was interviewed in 2001, she had already been at the firm for 10 years. She told the Times then that “I can do what I do because I have a great husband and a great nanny and a great law firm.” She emphasized her husband’s help and the law firm environment in the video as well. Now there are about 25 women partners at Debevoise out of about 150 partners, she says, comparable to the percentage of women leaders in other professions.

“Until we get to parity,” she says in the video, “we can’t let down our resolve.”

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